When the Stagecoach festival finally kicks into gear this weekend, it’ll be the first such major country music festival held in Southern California in more than a decade. While some might consider this jumbo scale round-up an unlikely proposition, what’s really surprising is the fact that it’s been that long since anyone tried it—Southern California was for decades the number one region for retail country music sales in the nation (a position that it only recently relinquished, and we currently hover between second and third place), and it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone involved—performers, merchandisers and audience alike—will go home satisfied.
They have, after all, drafted the top guns in (what passes for) straight-ahead country, George Strait and Alan Jackson. Strait, the Texas singer-songwriter who burst quietly onto the scene with a genteel brand of softcore honky-tonk and Western swing in the early ‘80s and has subsequently racked up a stash of awards and record-breaking attendance and ticket sale stats, is second to none in the business; while Strait always comes across with a deceptively low-key, almost flat affect on his albums and videos, the man’s show is bound to deliver enough voltage to account for what has become one of the single most impressive careers of the past 30 years.
Jackson has cultivated another almost mystifyingly unassuming persona, but has clung admirably to the post neo-traditionalist country sound, and achieved, in the last two decades, almost as impressive (and cash-register punishing) a pedigree as Strait. Moreover, to his great credit, Jackson actually had the naked temerity to recently put out a gospel album, a today almost unheard of concession to long-established country music practice (used to be that every major star’s third album was an all-spiritual set, but the marketers in Music City have apparently decided to leave that format to the born-agains, rather than muddy the waters with such uncomfortable-to-the-urban-consumer messagery).
The other big dogs at Stagecoach, though—professional meathead Kenny Chesney (no, he is not gay) and Nashville’s favorite boot-scootin’ white trash Two Stooges, Brooks & Dunn, trade in such slicked-up, painfully facile assembly-line razzle-dazzle that both certifiably fall into the love ‘em or hate ‘em category—precisely the perversely divisive fate that seems to have befallen a noble idiom that began as pure folk music, assumed an unparalleled expressive status as a mirror of the culture that produced it, and today, more often than not, just seems to lay there and bleed (and one can safely relegate almost all the other Mane Stage acts—Miranda Lambert, Jamie O’Neal, Jason Michael Carroll, Sugarland, Pat Green, Jason Aldean—into the latter sorry state).
Truth to tell, there’s only two cats on the bill who have actually traded in the evolutionary development of historical country music, Earl Scruggs and Willie Nelson. Banjo badass Scruggs defected from Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the late ‘40s, and with his high-impact, idiosyncratic Scruggs-style picking and the able assistance of guitarist Lester Flatt not only helped establish bluegrass as a beyond-Monroe sound, they introduced the music to mainstream America via the Beverly Hillbillies theme “Ballad of Jed Clampett” and the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack-featured “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”—and sold a hell of a lot of records in the process.
Willie, of course, is a whole different story—he just appeared at this very same site last week at hyper-rock fest Coachella. The former door-to-door salesman and disk jockey who parlayed his brilliant songwriting into an eternally enduring catalog of now-standard titles, Nelson established himself as a hillbilly immortal long before anyone outside of Nashville really knew who he was—only to pull the ultimate switcheroo when he transmogrified himself into the long-haired, cannabis-enriched, taboo-flouting spearhead of the early ‘70s Outlaw movement. The crazy old bastard hasn’t slowed up one bit since, shrugging off weed busts, IRS property seizures and the deaths of most of his closest colleagues, and Nelson remains one the most beloved iconoclasts in country music.
The balance of the Stagecoach bill is carved up into three disparate portions—bluegrass on the Appaloosa stage, Cowboy-Western on the Mustang stage and that there “alternative country” on the Palomino stage. The high lonesome sound is more than adequately represented, with the aforementioned Scruggs, mandolin wonderman Ricky Skaggs, new grass wunderkinder Nickel Creek and, of particular note, the astonishingly hard-banging bluegrass of the Del McCoury Band, the Nashville-based veterans who hit the bandstand with such extraordinarily zealous, biting energy that they can pull off just about anything—only McCoury could transform the sudsy Jerry Lee Lewis groaner “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” into a blazing banjo breakdown.
The Western cult—once the rage of the mid-20th century age—has dwindled down to a precious few, but the inclusion of Red Steagall is a choice one; designated, by an act of Texas legislature as the official Cowboy Poet of the Lone Star state, Steagall has a distinguished career as a writer (nicely kick-started when Ray Charles covered his “Here We Go Again”), racked up quite a few chart-toppers since he began recording in the late ‘60s, and is the man who discovered that singin’-est of Sooners, Reba McEntire. Just hope he does his first hit, “Party Dolls and Wine.” The high japes of comical Opry cast members Riders in the Sky and the atmospheric tales of Waddie Mitchell and Sons of the San Joaquin should satisfy the frontier fetishists, but, baby, it’s a long way off from the lost cowpoke mojo of Eddie Dean, Jimmy Wakely and Roy and Gene.
Which, of course, leaves the “alternative country” set; to a lot of people’s thinking, if a musician feels a need to find an alternative, then perhaps they ought not mess with country music in the first place. Yet mess with it they do, and while Lucinda Williams has demonstrated at times an impressively boozy war cry, and Alejandro Escovedo has an exceptional way with a song, the preponderance of windy, over-wordy writing styles and corny-in-the-wrong-way expression mostly comes off as annoying. Don’t miss the guit-steel monster Junior Brown, though, because he will supply, despite his tendency to overplay a solo into the next dimension. He’s just about the only dose of straight-up honky-tonk on the bill.
Which begs the question: where the hell is Haggard? George Jones? Loretta Lynn? They may all be hitting the high side of 70, but each maintains a pretty damn vigorous road schedule, and if, for whatever financial-logistical-health-what-have-you complications, none of them were able, what about Hank Jr.? David Allen Coe? Or Johnny Bush, the brilliant Texas dancehall overlord (who just released both a fine new CD, Kashmere Gardens Mud, and a riveting autobiography, Whiskey River, and, it just so happens, is actively scouting West Coast dates)?
These absences are a disappointment that, taken with the overall direction of the Stagecoach line-up, seems a pointed slight to modern country’s most enduring and influential style, honky-tonk. It’s a sound that will get even the most dorkified Brooks & Dunn yahoo up off his Wrangler-clad ass with an obnoxious—but heartfelt—rebel yell. Maybe next year.
Stagecoach at the Empire Polo Field, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio, www.stagecoachfestival.com. Sat.-Sun., noon-midnight. $165 (two-day pass), $391 (two-day VIP pass with reserved seating).